When a 911 operator answers a call, the operator often begins as follows: “Please state the nature of your emergency.” As anyone who has called 911 knows, how you describe your emergency has everything to do with how the police respond.

I was speaking to a friend by phone recently who is very active in sustainability efforts where he lives. He’s noticed that many of those who were showing interest in cooperating with his efforts last year have now withdrawn into concerns about their own immediate future. The growing economic crisis is concentrating their minds on such questions as: Will I keep my job? Will I be able to afford my house or apartment? What should I do with my savings, especially if they have declined significantly? For those running organizations the most basic question is one of survival. Can my business survive lower sales? Can my nonprofit survive declining donations and grants?

The emergency has been defined primarily as a financial emergency, and so all these people are reacting quite rationally under that definition, my friend conceded.

When faced with what we perceive is a crisis, we focus on the crisis first and worry about what we perceive are long-term problems later. Another contact, Nate Hagens of The Oil Drum, told me that he worries that as the economic crisis deepens, people will become even more focused on the immediate. That, of course, has serious implications for those concerned about long-term sustainability. He has written about why humans discount the future so steeply as follows:

If we didn’t have mortgage payments and college funds for our kids, our discount rates might even be steeper. It’s quite logical – animals that deferred opportunities to eat, might come back and their food was stolen, or they might have been eaten themselves in the interim – the long arm of selection would have favored organisms that valued immediacy over those who preferred to wait.

But the human penchant for focusing on the immediate is easily hijacked by modern forms of stimuli, Hagens adds:

Our culture presents a smorgasbord of options that allow us to ‘feel’ like our ancestors did when they were successful. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky likens the physiology of two grand master chess players to a marathon runner – the body is experiencing the same neurotransmitters (presumably, they did not have chess back on the Pleistoscene). Many of the options available to us that engage our neurotransmitters are maladaptive. Pornography, fast food, arcade games, lottery tickets, etc. all give us feelings identical to those our ancestors were good at pursuing. But now they often trick our brains into thinking they too will lead to evolutionary success.

For those who don’t engage in the pursuits listed above, Hagens offers another illustration of a highly abstract human task which activates ancient neural circuits:

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates, suggestive of what our ancestors must have ‘felt’ as they tried to increase resources.

This last example suggests why so many people are focused on the financial aspects of our crisis. The very top leadership around the world is positively convinced that the crisis we face is primarily a financial crisis with financial solutions. Hence, the huge bailout and spending packages being simultaneously proposed by governments around the world. These policymakers may simply believe (unconsciously, of course) that getting out of this economic slump is merely a question of picking nuts and berries at a much faster rate.

Here we have the problem of how the nature of the emergency is defined. Because the economic crisis has been labelled primarily a financial crisis and because that type of crisis appears to activate well-worn pathways in the human brain, this interpretation has gained wide acceptance.

But if we were to state the nature of the emergency as a sustainability crisis, could such an interpretation gain wide acceptance? Given the presumed short-term focus of most human behavior, such an outcome seems unlikely.

Certainly, people will agree that our current financial system is not sustainable. That much has become obvious. Or has it? Even here we find that most of the solutions to the financial crisis currently being offered merely prop up or try to re-energize existing financial institutions and practices. So, even now–in the throes of a tremendous crisis in which basic institutions ought to be questioned–most leaders and most people in general are not currently examining how the “nuts and berries” are produced. We simply want more of them and hope that doing more of what we’ve done in the past (for example, expanding debt) will work.

If the current efforts to revive the economy do not work, perhaps then we as a society will look more seriously at setting up alternative financial structures. But, that leaves us a long way from considering urgent areas of sustainability: energy depletion, food production, water depletion, population and climate change.

Each area has the potential to produce more than just local or regional crises. But until they are understood as urgent, I fear that little will be done on a national or international level. This, of course, does not preclude local efforts where people perceive these threats as immediate and ongoing. But I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” If some communities successfully address sustainability and other don’t, it seems only a matter of time before those that don’t become the predators of those that do.

So, my question remains. How can the sustainability crisis (of which the current financial crisis is most certainly a symptom) be framed as something that deserves our immediate and ongoing attention? What well-worn, evolutionarily successful pathways of thinking and feeling are available to motivate broader action?

The issue can’t be merely that the problems we face in sustainability are too abstract. After all, stock trading is pretty abstract; but, it seems to map nicely to an already available pathway of thinking and acting. Can we find more of these and use them to communicate the sustainability imperative?

Clearly, simply stating the nature of the emergency as we have in the past is not enough.